Tilt-Shift Photography Comes of Age

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Tilt-shift photography is all the rage these days. Chances are you’ve seen it in action: a photo of a real scene — usually something big, like a city street or a stadium — that looks like a perfect toy miniature. We first wrote about this camera trick (also known as “miniature faking”) in 2008, but in the last few years the technique has exploded from obscurity to the mainstream, appearing in hit TV shows and movies, viral videos, gallery shows, and, of course, some pretty cool Blurb books.

How is it done? The technique requires a special tilt-shift lens or lens modifier which turns slightly askew to the camera, thus changing the focus area and apparent depth of field. The resulting combination of large blurred edges and small, sharply-focused areas tricks the eye into identifying the scene as a very small diorama shot from up close (as with a macro lens), rather than a large vista seen from a distance. The illusion is even stronger if bright, saturated colors are present, enhancing the impression of tiny, painted models.

Unfortunately, tilt-shift lenses are pretty expensive, running into the thousands of dollars in the US. But one enthusiast in Blurb’s UK office shaved the cost from about £1500 to £300 by going with a manual model from Eastern Europe rather than the usual automatic models. And if you’re really adventurous, you can even build your own.

But now the world of miniature faking is opening up to the masses, even those without a tilt-shift lens. If you just want to play around with the effect without breaking the bank, a little Photoshop trickery can simulate the lens distortions fairly accurately, and there are even iPhone apps out there for on-the-go experimentation.

We’d always heard that the world was getting smaller. Indeed it is, one photo at a time.

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